Russian teacher ‘shocked’ as she faces jail over anti-war speech pupils taped

When Irina Gen, a 55-year-old English and German language teacher in the Russian city of Penza, embarked on an anti-war speech in her classroom, little did she know that she was being recorded by her own students.

“I just wanted to broaden my students’ worldview. I hoped to break through the propaganda that is being fed to this country. But look where it got me,” said Gen, who faces a long-term prison sentence for “discrediting” the Russian army after her message went viral.

On 18 March, Gen’s 13 and 14-year-old students asked her why Russian athletes were banned from participating in international competitions – a decision by the west that she said she tried to place into context.

“Until Russia starts to behave in a civilised manner, the non-admission of Russian athletes to competitions will continue forever … I think that is correct,” she said in the audio, which was first shared by Kremlin-linked Telegram channels. “Russia wanted to reach Kyiv and overthrow the government! Ukraine is, in fact, a sovereign state, there is a sovereign government … We are living in a totalitarian regime. Any dissent is considered a crime.”

Gen also voiced her disapproval of the way Russian state media framed the bombing of a maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol as a Ukrainian-style provocation.

Five days after her anti-war remarks to students, she got a call from the local FSB branch telling her to come to their office, where she was informed that security agencies had received the footage of her speaking out in class.

“I was shocked. I had no idea I was being recorded,” Gen recalled.

“I told the prosecutors that I wasn’t lying. That I was merely citing respected western outlets like AP and BBC, outlets that I believe are professional and objective in their reporting,” Gen said. “But, of course, that wasn’t really an argument they would accept.”

At the end of last month, Russian prosecutors announced that they had opened a criminal case against Gen under a recently introduced law that criminalises the spread of so-called fake news about the Russian army.

Prosecutors specifically took issue with the statements Gen made about the Mariupol maternity ward.

Gen has since been banned from leaving the country, and her lawyer said she faced up to 10 years in jail if found guilty.

Russia has launched an unprecedented crackdown on anti-war sentiments, and Gen’s case is one of at least four that are known about in which teachers who criticised the war were either fired or prosecuted after students complained about them to their parents and the authorities.

“I am simply being prosecuted for a viewpoint that isn’t the official one. My family already went once went through a denunciation campaign in the Soviet Union,” Gen said referring to Stalin’s great purge, in which hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens denounced their neighbours, friends and relatives as “enemies of the state”.

While she was “upset” to find out she was being recorded by the students she knew well, she did not hold a grudge against them.

“I don’t blame my students; they just follow what their parents think and tell them to do,” said Gen, who has since left her teaching job.

She believes one of the parents of her pupils encouraged their child to record her after Gen earlier made “small” anti-war remarks during class.

“This situation is terrible. It has been very hard on me personally. But it’s also crazy to see how everyone around me, the vast majority of people that I know, people I considered friends, are supporting Russia in this conflict,” she said.

Six weeks into President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, polls indicate that the Kremlin, with the help of relentless state propaganda, has managed to mobilise popular support for its military actions.

Moscow early on signalled that it would not tolerate dissenting voices in its education sector. The country’s education minister, Sergey Kravtsov, openly described schools as vital to Russia’s fight to “win the information and psychological war” against the west.

As of 1 March, schools introduced new lessons in which teachers were instructed to explain to their students why Russia was forced to start the war against “a fascist regime in Ukraine”.

Hundreds of posts have also appeared on Russian social media featuring schoolchildren posing for pictures forming Z signs, the military marking that has become the main symbol of public support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Local kindergartens have even posted images of toddlers lying on a playmat in a Z formation and preschoolers painting their country’s military symbol in the colours of the Russian tricolour.

Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said that the experience of Gen and other teachers pointed to a worrying “Stalinisation” of Russian society.

“It feels like we are in a time machine. A climate is created in which denunciations are encouraged by the authorities. We have seen the same processes develop under Stalin, which had devastating consequences,” Kolesnikov said.

Kolesnikov said he had been approached by “many university professors” who said they were scared to mention the “Ukrainian subject”.

“They say that students are trying to provoke them into speaking about the conflict just to denounce them.”

Kolesnikov said that if the current atmosphere in the country persisted, Russia “will soon have a new generation of Pavlik Morozov’s”, referring to the Soviet boy Morozov who denounced his father to the authorities and became a propaganda icon, with statues of him being raised all over Russia.

Kolesnikov also argued that the effects of the current war frenzy would be felt far beyond the classrooms in the country.

A number of reports have recently emerged of random passersby denouncing small business owners who put up anti-war messages on their shop windows.

“We are seeing creeping signs of an authoritarian regime transforming into a full-on totalitarian one, in which a mobilised society actively tells on each other,” Kolesnikov said.